WV Center for Civic Life Encourages Dialogue, Solutions

It's easy to feel like you don't have a voice, or that the attempts to address Appalachia's challenges just end up in finger-pointing and insults. But the West Virginia Center for Civic Life hopes to change that by helping communities conduct civil, productive dialogues instead of divisive shouting matches – something our national leaders could use too. The Center, a new organization based in Charleston, promotes what they call "deliberative democracy," which "requires people to come together and talk–to deliberate about common problems in the context of a deliberative forum— instead of merely voting for candidates to represent them.  Action then follows talk…. Citizens take ownership of problems. They talk about what they can do, not what others ought to do."

Recently this model was used to talk about drug addiction at the University of Charleston. The Charleston Daily Mail covered the event:

Forum teaches communities to help deal with addiction

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Workers can't pass drug tests. Kids mimic parents who are doing drugs. Families struggle to find help for addicted loved ones.

Those were some of the issues discussed Wednesday at a forum on prescription drug abuse at the University of Charleston. Ministers, teachers, community leaders and others gathered to talk about the problem.

The West Virginia Center for Civic Life was training them to host community forums throughout the state. 

Participants in the center's Civic Life Institute learn to moderate talks by asking probing questions while staying neutral on the issues. The center trains them on how to gather information from the sessions, and turn it into community action.

The discussion on prescription drug abuse started with examples from people's own lives.

Connie Lupardus of the Central Appalachia Empowerment Zone in Clay said many residents can't pass drug tests.

"We are losing our work force," she said. "We are losing a generation of workers."

A woman who works at a psychiatric hospital said substance abuse is the main problem she sees.

"Finding treatment, it's hard," she said. "And a lot of our children do have to go out of state" to find it.

Many participants placed the blame on doctors. A woman said some physicians give prescriptions meant for terminally ill patients for "minor aches and pains."

"It's ridiculous," she said.

Another said she told her dentist she didn't want a prescription for narcotic painkillers after a procedure, but he wrote her one anyway.

Some said it's a larger cultural problem, pointing to the countless TV commercials that promise to fix people's problems with pills.  

One participant, Barbour County Schools Superintendent Joe Super, said community forums should reach out to the medical community to get their perspectives, too. It's also important to stay up to speed on what state lawmakers are doing, he said.

"There are great positions out there from some of our legislators on these issues," he said.

The group of about 50 people also shared ideas for specific things their community could support to make a dent in West Virginia's prescription drug abuse problem.

Margaret Stout, an assistant professor of public administration at West Virginia University, said people can't change the culture overnight, but suggested that communities support programs to help people dispose of leftover prescription drugs safely.

Police agencies around the state have hosted daylong take-back events, but people said they wanted to see a system where residents could drop off pills at any time. Federal regulations bar such programs for controlled substances — such as narcotic painkillers and anti-anxiety pills — though the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is working to change that.

Community discussions can spark many improvements, but only if people act after all the talk, said Margaret O'Neal, director of the United Way of Southern West Virginia.

Last year, her organization hosted 50 forums on prescription drug abuse throughout Fayette County. High school students, civic groups, law enforcement officers and doctors all took part.

At the discussions, people said residents in rural Fayette County had nowhere to go if they wanted to join Narcotics Anonymous.

Local churches decided to host NA meetings to help those people, she said.

"Some of the churches really stepped up and said, 'This is something we want to take on,'" she said. "There was action taken."

Other topics at this year's Civic Life Institute, which continues Thursday, include preventing high-school dropouts and improving fitness and nutrition.